Featured in Capital #63 Subscribe to get the real thing here.
You may have seen him trundling the hills and vales of Wellington, hat pulled firmly over his forehead, eyes downcast. He’s a forager extraordinaire, but keeps his finds close to his chest and prefers to remain nameless.
Sharon Greally met him and shares as much as she dares.
Did you know ambergris, a substance with a particularly fetid smell spewed up by sperm whales, and usually used as a fixative by perfumiers, can be used in the making of Greek coffee to give it a depth of flavour? No, neither did I. This is just one of the little known food facts that are emitted from this local foragers’ vast knowledge.
Fraternise with him, and it will feel like a delectable trip of discovery around the world’s culinary expenses. He talks about movie stars’ favourite delights – “Oh yes, Bridget Bardot’s favourite dessert was Tarte Tropezienne” – as though he was just talking with her last week. Also known as “La Tarte de Saint-Tropez”, better not translated as the tart of St Tropez, this dessert pastry was created in 1955 for Bardot by the owner of a famous local patisserie, while she was filming And God Created Woman. The patisserie still exists today, and is called “La Tarte Tropézienne”. And Anthony Bourdain? “Oh yes, he was like a little boy in a candy shop when he met Thomas Keller. Did you know Keller was the food consultant for Ratatouille? Anyway, Keller could see Anthony was nervous, and needed a cigarette, so he made him a crème brulee using Bourdain’s fag of choice, Marlboros!”
So, you can see this guy is a total foodie.
Food is part of his family’s lexicon. His grandparents owned a Patisserie in St. Petersburg, making “sugar spun delicacies, and sweets that looked like rainbows”. They also would peddle sourced goods around their domain to local homes and fooderies. Emigrating to Dunedin in the gold rush days, with the war at their heels, his Polish grandparents (of the Russian aristocracy according to his grandmother, but of Greek extraction – blame the various wars) brought their culinary skills with them, sousing anything they could find, including slippery jack mushrooms, which would end up “tasting like oysters”. Our super sleuth was taught how to forage from a very early age, going on urban food-sourcing adventures.
He has spent many years foraging around this country, and has settled in Wellington – for now. His foraging excursions take him anything up to four hours per day, within a 60k radius, travelling as far as Waikanae for extraordinary requests, so his toils are well appreciated. He “barters” his wares, exchanging them for certain luxuries; a fat Cuban cigar, a bottle of single malt Scotch.
He tells me he forages for fun, but that it’s also a “good little earner”. His foray into sourcing wild foods came about when he met a Michelin starred Italian chef working at an exclusive restaurant in the city, who wanted freshly foraged food – a common enough enterprise in Italy, but unheard of here at that time. So, our forager found himself engaged in a new operation. And with a lot to learn. Michelin-standard chefs are very particular about the produce they require, and also how it is picked and delivered. Google became a very close ally. He tells me “there is a trilogy for Michelin Chefs” – Blue Borage leaves and flowers, shamrocks (yes, they grow here, more commonly known as oxalis), and baby nasturtium leaves. And all can be found in Wellington. As can various species of mushroom, including the highly prized porcini, at certain times of the year. “They’re not hard to find – you just have to know where to look.”
His herbalist ran out of linden tea, used as a sleep aid and sourced from Scandinavia, and bemoaned the fact. So he scouted round and found the plants right on our doorstep. They have “leaves like fairy wings” and “taste better than chamomile”.
Other palatable discoveries in our stomping ground include the edible fungus wood ear, also known as “tree jellyfish”, which is used in Chinese medicine as a detox he tells me. “It’s a bit like chewing on a weimaraner’s ear.” Hmmm…
Another favourite is the geranium molle, more commonly known as “dove’s foot”. An edible weed, it is apparently rare, and tastes like coriander. “I generally keep this one for myself.” Arrowhead sorrel is another, with leaves shaped like its name, used in salads and sauces.
Three types of watercress, herbs, and Piko Piko or tree fern are popular. As is Horopito, “tastes like bay leaves and pepper mixed together. It actually makes a great Bay Rum, which can also be used as an aftershave. Barbers should use it.” I suggest it could be a new enterprise for him, but he says he doesn’t have time. He’ll leave that to someone else.
Blewit, or bluet, mushrooms look how they sound, with a slight purplish tinge. They are apparently violet-scented, but “imagine a bunch of rubber bands thrown in. That’s what they smell like”.
Foraging is an art, he tells me, “like adding music to the framework of a chef’s artistry.”
Combing the shrubbery foraging for edibles can be a risky business, involving scrambling down steep slopes, and fossicking in dark murky undergrowth. You have to be sure-footed. It’s not for those who are easily frightened. Foragers like all hunter-gatherers like to keep their special locations secret. Certain areas are closely watched …. enter at your peril.